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Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe.. History of the Indian Tribes of the United States: Their Present Condition and Prospects, and a Sketch of Their Ancient Status. Volume 6. . Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo and Co, 1857. [format: book; image], [genre: government document; report]. Permission: Northern Illinois University
Persistent link to this document: http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/file.php?file=schoolcraft6.html


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Chapter IV. — Ambuscade and Battle of Oriskany.

THE siege of Fort Stanwix had continued but three or four days, when an American scout entered it, with the intelligence that General Herkimer, at the head of an army of militia, was on his way to relieve it.

Consternation had paralyzed the inhabitants of the Mohawk valley while the danger was yet distant, but the peril seemed to diminish the moment it came near. A desire for security compelled men to take up arms. If Fort Stanwix fell, the Mohawk valley would be swept with fire and sword; and General Herkimer, who commanded the militia, issued his proclamation, summoning them to arms. Three regiments, the entire strength of the valley, promptly responding, followed that determined prototype of Blucher to Oriskany, which was distant but a few miles from the fort.

Brant, who figured as the leader of the Iroquois, had called into requisition all his local knowledge of the route, and all the peculiar art of the Indians in war, that he might decoy General Herkimer and his army into an ambuscade. The system of tactics pursued by the Indians is, not to engage in a battle in compact ranks, but to seek to screen themselves, either under the darkness of night, or through the intervention of forests; and if in this way a good assault can be made, their courage sometimes becomes equal to a contest in very open order, or even to a charge on the field of battle. 372 But, in this instance, the chief evidently only sought to serve on the flanks, and to fall on the Americans unawares, or at a disadvantage. Such is the Indian idea of military triumph. General Herkimer reached the valley of the Oriskany, August 6, at ten o'clock in the morning. The crossing at this stream was surrounded by low grounds, traversed by a causeway, and beyond it were elevated plateaus, covered with forests, which overlooked it. The Americans saw nothing to excite suspicion. Herkimer had entered this pass, and two regiments had descended into the valley, but his vanguard

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had not reached the opposite elevation, when a heavy fire was suddenly poured in from all sides, accompanied by horrid yells, and the pass in his rear was immediately closed by the enemy. He was completely entrapped in an ambuscade, and for a few moments there was nothing but confusion and panic; the men fell thickly, and the army was threatened with utter annihilation; but they flew to the encounter like tigers; patriot and tory grappled with each other in deadly struggle. The dark eye of the Indian flashed with delight at the prospect of revelling in human blood, and the tory sought to immolate his late neighbor, who had espoused the hated cause of the Revolution. General Herkimer was wounded, and fell from his horse early in the action; a ball had pierced his leg below the knee, and killed his horse under him. His men were falling thickly around him; Colonel Cox was killed, and the yells of the savages resounded in every direction; but yet the firmness and composure of the General were undisturbed. His saddle was placed near a tree, and he was seated on it, his back being supported by the tree. Here he issued his orders; and drawing from his pocket his tobacco-box, and lighting his pipe, he smoked calmly while the battle raged around. After some forty-five minutes had elapsed, the men began to fight in small circles — a movement worthy of notice, since it was the only mode of contending successfully with the surrounding enemy. From this time, the Americans gained ground. A slight cessation in the firing was taken advantage of by the enemy, who ordered a charge. Bayonets were crossed, and a desperate struggle ensued, which was arrested by a sudden and heavy shower of rain, which fell in a massive sheet during one entire hour. The combatants were thus separated. Herkimer's men then, under his direction, chose a more advantageous position, and formed in a large circle. They were, from the first, as expert as the Indians in firing from behind trees; but the latter, as soon as they saw the smoke of the discharge, ran up and tomahawked the soldier before he could reload. The Americans then placed two men behind each tree, and after one fired, the other was ready to shoot down the advancing savage. The fire of the militia becoming more effective, the enemy began to give way, when Major Watts came on the ground, with another detachment of the Royal Greens, chiefly composed of fugitive tories, and the fight was renewed with greater vigor than before. The contending parties sprang at each other from the lines with the fury of enraged tigers, charging with bayonets, and striking at each other with clubbed muskets.

A diversion was now made which became the turning point in the contest. One of Herkimer's scouts having reached the fort with the news of his position, its commander immediately resolved to make a sally for the relief of the army. The troops were paraded in a square, and the intelligence communicated to them. Colonel Willett then descended to the esplanade and addressed the men in a patriotic manner, concluding with the words: "As many of you as feel willing to follow me in an attack, and are not afraid to die for liberty, will shoulder your arms, and step out ONE PACE in

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front." 373 Two hundred men volunteered almost at the same moment; and fifty more, with a three-pounder, were soon after added to the force. The rain storm, which came up suddenly, hindered their immediate march, but as soon as it ceased they issued from the sally-port at a brisk pace, and, rushing down upon the camp of Sir John, carried it at the point of the bayonet, drove the enemy through the Mohawk, and captured all their camp equipage and public stores, at the same time killing a large number. Colonel Willett then turned his arms against the Mohawk camp, and swept through it. The sound of this rapid and severe firing arrested the attention of the belligerants, after the cessation of the rain. By a change of caps with a company of men, whose dress in this respect resembled that of the Americans, Major Watts attempted to palm off on the patriots a detachment of his troops as an American reinforcement; but the subterfuge being quickly discovered, the fight was resumed with bitter enmity. The Indian exclamation of Oonah! was at length heard, and the enemy retired, leaving Herkimer in possession of the field. Those who have most minutely described this battle, relate instances of personal heroism which would not disgrace the Iliad. 374

The Indians, who had suffered severely, fought with great desperation. One hundred of their number lay dead, thirty-six of whom, comprising several chiefs, were Senecas, 375 who had been present in the greatest numbers. The fighting had become desultory, when suddenly the Senecas, who feared the arrival of American reinforcements, shouted their word for retreat, and commenced to move off, followed by the loyalists; whilst the reviving shouts, and more spirited firing of Herkimer's men, resounded in every direction. Thus ended one of the most severely-contested battles of the Revolution. It was, in reality, a victory for the Americans, and not a defeat, as it has been usually called, for they were left in undisputed possession of the field, which was not visited again by the enemy, either white or red. The victors constructed forty or fifty litters, on which they conveyed the wounded to their homes. Among the number was General Herkimer, who reached in safety his own house, where he died, about ten days after the battle, from the result of an unskilful amputation of his leg.

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Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe.. History of the Indian Tribes of the United States: Their Present Condition and Prospects, and a Sketch of Their Ancient Status. Volume 6. . Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo and Co, 1857. [format: book; image], [genre: government document; report]. Permission: Northern Illinois University
Persistent link to this document: http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/file.php?file=schoolcraft6.html
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